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Britain unveils plans for new terrorism powers

LONDON (Reuters) - Britain unveiled plans on Thursday for controversial new powers to extend the time police can hold terrorism suspects without charge -- but the compromise deal failed to appease critics.

Britain's Home Secretary Jacqui Smith leaves Downing Street after a Cabinet meeting in London November 13, 2007. REUTERS/Alessia Pierdomenico

Since taking over from Tony Blair in June, Prime Minister Gordon Brown has said police powers need to be extended to allow them to deal with complex terrorism investigations that involve multiple plots and many countries.

But he has had to backtrack from simply raising the detention limit in the face of mounting opposition not just from political opponents and civil rights groups, but from senior legal figures and within his own Labour Party.

Instead, the new and complicated proposals would allow the government to use temporary measures only in extreme situations, permitting detectives to quiz suspects for a maximum of 42 days -- up from the current 28-day cut-off.

These additional powers, which would be subject to parliamentary approval, would expire after two months.

Home Secretary Jacqui Smith said the measures were needed to address an increasing “serious and sustained threat”.

Britain’s security services have said they are monitoring thousands of individuals that pose a risk and so far this year 42 people have been convicted of terrorism offences.

But Smith said the new powers would only be used in exceptional circumstances.

“It is not something we are expecting to become mundane or everyday,” she told reporters, saying police and the independent reviewer of government terrorism laws backed their plans.

The current limit was itself a compromise deal agreed two years ago after Blair suffered his first defeat in the House of Commons when Labour MPs rebelled against plans for a 90-day limit. Brown is likely to face similar problems.

Ministers concede that no case has so far required more time than the current limit but say detectives were pushed to the brink over the suspected plot to blow up transatlantic airliners in August last year.

Two suspects were charged on the 28th day of their detention. But civil rights groups argue 28 days is already longer than in any other comparable democracy, such as the United States, Russia or Turkey.

Many senior officials, including the former Attorney General and the Director of Public Prosecutions, remain unconvinced and both major opposition parties are fierce opponents, saying no evidence has been produced for the extension.

They have accused Brown of playing politics with security and dismissed the proposed safeguards as chaotic.

“It is pig-headed stubbornness for the government to push on with extending pre-charge detention just as the consensus against it is deepening,” said Nick Clegg, the Liberal Democrat home affairs spokesman.

Editing by Sophie Walker